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Hams Strive to End Antenna Bans

During Hurricane Katrina, the president of the United States wanted to confer with the mayor of New Orleans . However, all centralized communications systems, including military ones, were down.

During Hurricane Katrina, the president of the United States wanted to confer with the mayor of New Orleans . However, all centralized communications systems, including military ones, were down.

What next? Three players will decide what happens next:

  • The FCC. If it grants HFA’s petition, or a reasonable variation, HFA may declare victory and disband.
  • ARRL. If the FCC does not respond favorably, hams must again turn to Congress. In the next session, will ARRL press for a more moderate and marketable version of H.R. 3876? Will it press for any antenna ban legislation at all? Evasion or inaction by ARRL will invite lobbying by HFA.
  • Hams themselves. Are enough amateur radio operators willing to support additional action by HFA? Board members have financed HFA so far, but to do more we will need help. Hams can press ARRL to act more vigorously, or they can join HFA, or they can do both. Those amateur radio operators who don’t do either shouldn’t complain about antenna bans.

The solution? Volunteer amateur radio operators, also known as “hams,” relayed the messages. Being decentralized, often with independent power supplies, hams initially were the only people who could get messages through.

Hams typically have been the first to report from disaster areas. Then they have remained on the air even after infrastructure collapses have silenced others.

Now, a small but nationwide group of hams has formed Hams For Action. Founded on July 10, the advocacy group strives to assure that hams will retain their historic capacity to provide emergency communications “when all else fails.”

HFA’s first step was mailing an information package to every board member of the American Radio Relay League, which speaks for the ham community in general. HFA’s second step was filing a Petition for Rulemaking with the FCC, seeking partial and conditional overrides of bans on ham antennas by homeowners’ associations (HOAs), restrictive covenants and landlords.

Economics Professor Ron Cheung of Florida State University , in an analysis of HOAs, reports that at least 50 percent of all new housing in America is controlled by HOAs. Unfortunately, nearly all of the HOAs ban all ham antennas.

Similar prohibitions by landlords add to the impact.

Self-imposed disconnections

Most HOAs, covenants and landlords do not regulate external ham antennas — they ban them completely. Even small, unobtrusive antennas are forbidden.

These total antenna bans function as total prohibitions against ham radio. They deny to neighborhoods any coverage by the one emergency communications system that works “when all else fails.”

The impact is not geographically uniform. Although HOAs are spreading, they are still most common in the newer suburbs of larger urban areas. Apartments are still most common in more developed portions of urban areas. Because hams generally have found that apartments bar them from installing any outdoor antennas, the combined effect of the two restrictive forces is to impair ham radio most pervasively in and around large urban areas — the same places that are the likeliest targets for terrorism.

A shortage of new recruits

Ham antenna bans are not demographically uniform, either. Because they most frequently affect newer owner-occupied housing, as well as rental housing, their impact falls with greatest force upon younger Americans.

This makes it difficult for currently licensed hams to “replace themselves.” How many potential school age recruits are failing to participate because they cannot erect a ham antenna in the home of their parent(s)? Indeed, how many middle-aged adults are failing to participate because they cannot practice their craft at home?

The clock is ticking. Most hams, we believe, are over 55, which means an above average percentage of them are likely to “depart the planet” during the next 30 years. Ironically, during this period, we may need even more hams than we have today.

The chances of a man-made disaster, such as a terrorist atomic bomb, are rising. Meanwhile, at least one mega-geological disaster, within the next few decades, is almost certain.

Among other experts, Dr. Mary Lou Zoback of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park , Calif. , warns that the so-called “Big One” in Southern California is overdue and another “Big One” in Northern California is probable in the next 20 years. Dr. Brian Atwater of the USGS in Seattle has joined other experts in research that demonstrates that the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone in the Pacific Northwest , periodically generates 9.0 earthquakes and tsunamis powerful enough to damage Japan . The latter research has recently been popularized in the John Nance novel “Saving Cascadia.”

History of federal inaction

During the 1990s, ARRL and others sought action by the FCC to override amateur antenna bans. The FCC said “No.”

In 2002, with encouragement from ARRL, Rep. Steven Israel, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that required all HOAs and/or covenants to provide “reasonable accommodation” of ham antennas. An identical bill followed in the next session of Congress. For the bill in this session, H.R. 3876, Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., joined Rep. Israel as a primary sponsor.

Support peaked at 37 sponsors in 2004. By 2006, this number dropped to 11. A companion bill was not introduced in the Senate.

HFA’s board members concluded that ARRL was not advocating the legislation actively enough, and/or the bill itself did not do enough to ease the possible concerns of HOAs and landlords. HFA addressed the first possibility by contacting ARRL. Then HFA presented a new, more moderate approach to antenna bans in its FCC petition.

H.R. 3876 overrides antenna bans on behalf of all hams. It appears to assume, implicitly, that all amateur radio operators have a right to transmit.

The HFA proposal limits overrides to hams who have been trained and certified as emergency communicators. We ask the FCC, or, if necessary, Congress, to embrace a privilege to transmit, one that is earned by gaining a verified capability to provide emergency communications and perhaps, in the future, other services to the public.

H.R. 3876 requires HOAs and/or covenants to provide “reasonable accommodation” of ham antennas. However, it leaves “reasonable accommodation” to be defined through case-by-case litigation.

HFA attempts to establish a middle ground of compromise in advance. For example:
For single-family homes and town homes, HFA’s proposal creates a “rebuttable presumption” in favor of exterior ham antennas whose height is 20 feet or less. Condominium and apartment antennas are limited to 3 feet in height.

The other side of the coin, of course, is a rebuttable presumption against ham antennas that exceed that height. Because such presumptions are “rebuttable,” hams and/or HOAs can still go to court by showing special circumstances that challenge the presumption. However, going to court is optional, not inescapable.

H.R. 3876 overrides only bans imposed by HOAs and/or covenants. HFA’s proposal adds an override for bans by landlords.

Moderating HOA/covenant bans, while tremendously important, still leaves many areas unprotected. In New York City , for example, increases in ham radio activity will be marginal unless landlord bans are also moderated.